After someone else had taken over movie reviews I switched to writing a “staying in” column, there I would make recommendations for DVDs based on what was currently playing in cinemas. The idea would be to recommend similar, and possibly superior, alternatives to the month’s releases. And by the way, I was going for Garth Marenghi with that headshot. I think I succeeded.
This Week’s Releases: Ghost Rider, Becoming Jane, Outlaw, Norbit, The Number 23, The Illusionist.
There have been a mixed batch of films released in the past two weeks and as far as I can tell none of them have been spectacular so perhaps one of the recommendations below will offer a viable alternative.
Ghost Rider is the latest addition to the comic book movie genre in a decade where we’ve seen the market absolutely swamped with them, and with predictably varied success. A few of them, however, are definitely worth your time. That which immediately springs to mind is Batman Begins starring Christian Bale and directed by Christopher Nolan (who you’ll be hearing about again). Batman Begins is a testament to how sticking close to the source material is always a good idea. Nolan has managed to distil an almost seventy-year-long legacy into a brilliant two hours and twenty minutes of entertainment. It captures the spirit of Batman as well as telling an intriguing story and flourishing some great originality with its treatment of the pre-Batman Bruce Wayne. What I found most original was Batman’s assembly of tools that he wasn’t really able to design, giving us a more hashed-together approach that was very refreshing. This movie’s other great strength is its tremendous ensemble cast, with ever member except Katie Holmes putting in stunning performances. The good news is that she’s being replaced by the impressive Maggie Gyllenhaal for the sequel, The Dark Knight. Batman Begins is excellent, but it’s not perfect. Some of the choices with the Batman character don’t sit well with die-hard fans like me and some of the “science” is incredibly stupid, but if you’re not going to notice either of these things then this is a film you need to see.
The next film you should consider is Sin City by director Robert Rodriguez, an inconsistently brilliant filmmaker. Sin City is a gritty, highly stylised modern noir tale based on the Frank Miller comic book series of the same name. It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen, having been shot entirely against green screen but with some superb effects. It’s also probably the closest comic-to-screen transfer ever, with Miller’s comics themselves being used as the storyboards for the film. Sin City features some terrific performances but is much more extreme in its content and overall style than Batman, so its appeal won’t be as universal. Provided that you don’t have a problem with graphic violence or swearing, you’ll enjoy this movie, and won’t be surprised to hear that Quentin Tarantino had a hand in its production as well.
Finally, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles from Pixar animation studios is not only better than Toy Story, it’s also one of the most breath-taking and enjoyable action movies ever made. The superhero aspect is approached with a keen sense of humour as well as some very sharp (and quite dark) satire. It also sports a unique style and some hilarious character interplay. Make sure you see this film. Another couple of honourable mentions go to the Spider-Man series by Evil Dead director Sam Raimi, a respectable take on the Marvel hero and The Crow, the film Bruce Lee’s son died making. It’s a revenge action movie with some truly beautiful cinematography and what would have been a star-making performance. Make sure you go and see 300 this month, another adaptation of Miller’s stellar comic work. I’m going to do a feature on getting started with comic books next term, so that’s why the recommendations are absent.
The Number 23 is apparently a fairly shallow treatment of obsession that’s all style over substance. If you want a dense, challenging film with a paranoia and numerology theme then look no further than Darren Aronofsky’s π. It’s a very low budget film about obsession and the number π. It’s shot in black and white and is quite difficult to watch at times. It really takes you inside the protagonist’s head and it is not a pleasant place. Again, this film isn’t a classic and they do manage to misquote π in the opening credits, but it is worth a watch. Batman’s Christopher Nolan has given us one of the finest examples of the genre in Memento. Memento is a film so intelligent it should be sentient. It’s an engrossing watch and just unbelievably well-written and executed with Guy Pearce in arguably his greatest dramatic performance. Finally in the thriller category is David Fincher’s Se7en. This is a wonderfully shot, disturbing, psychological drama again with a phenomenal cast. These two films deserve more than just a mention but all I can say here is that they are essential viewing, but Se7en is fairly extreme so it might not be for everyone.
Becoming Jane and The Illusionist are both period pieces and the only thing I can recommend here, as it is not my chosen genre, is The Prestige, another Nolan film, also with Bale in the lead. It, like The Illusionist, focuses on a magic act at the turn of the century but also deals with obsession and deception. The Prestige is a good film to just sit and enjoy. Don’t think to hard about it or you’ll get lost in it. Just let it happen and be taken along for the ride. It’s much more enjoyable this way, the same way magic is more enjoyable if you allow yourself to be deceived.
As far as a comedy alternative to Norbit goes: just anything, anything else. I would recommend The Aristocrats as a means to test just how sick and twisted your sense of humour is. It’s a story about a very, very disgusting joke with contributions from comedians of great renown. If, like me, nothing offends you, then you will enjoy this film a great deal. If not, then you can know that the rest of us are beyond saving.
Lastly, with regards to Outlaw, a British street movie, I have to say that I’m a big fan of both The Long Good Friday and Gangster No. 1. They’re both gritty British gangster flicks, plotting the rise and fall of their principal characters and they’re both excellent. The Long Good Friday features a stellar performance from Bob Hoskins and also has the now Oscar-winning Helen Mirren in an early role. Gangster No. 1 is a psychological treatment of a criminal mind, told in narration by the main character looking back on his life. It’s an original and enjoyable film starring the much underused David Thewlis as well as Malcolm MacDowell and Paul Bettany.
That’s all for this week, folks, hopefully I’ll find a way to work in Westerns soon enough. Enjoy the vacation and make sure you watch at least one of these films. It’ll be good for you.
Originally Published 2007.